Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Million Dollar Bird - The Yellow-Billed Loon

This is the famous, Yellow-billed loon.

This is the same loon being camera shy.
This is a regular old, Common loon, so you can see the difference.

     Yesterday, I did something really ridiculous, but very gratifying. That combination is often the case for me. I have the most fun when whatever I'm doing involves a little risk. Out of the blue the night before, I got a phone call from a birding acquaintance. "What are you doing tomorrow?" He asked. A laundry list of boring stuff that I should do flew through my head like a flock of angry crows. But what I said was, "Evidently, I'm going to be hanging out with you!" He laughed, then invited me to go with him the next morning to see a rare bird. That always involves risk, because you never know if you'll see the bird or not. And, you could waste a lot of time and moolah on the quest.
    Birders call dropping everything to go after a rare bird "twitching." I don't know why it's called that. Perhaps because when you write a check or slide your credit card across a counter to pay for the crap-shoot you're about to embark on, it makes you twitch. It made me twitch when I said yes to an ocean- going boat trip ticket to the tune of forty bucks, I can tell you that. Keep in mind that it's the very end of October in Maine and the Atlantic ocean is most inhospitable. We weren't going on a sunbathing, endless buffet cruise to Aruba. Layers and layers of clothing were required, a double dose of the anti-emetic of your choice (I like Bonine), water, gloves, a hat, lip balm and a prayer book are prudent choices. It's advisable to take something to eat too, so that when you hurl overboard you've got a donation at the ready. There's little worse than tossing your cookies without the cookie. I have experience.
     The weather forecast was for a gray, cold day with sea swells around four feet. All in all, not too bad, or at least not as bad as it could be, even though 'swell' does rhyme with 'hell' for a reason. I packed a bag of general necessities and my bag of camera equipment which weighs roughly 500 pounds. Since I was going birding with a tribe of big shot birders, I had to take my binoculars, too. Normally, I just use my camera's long lens like a huge monocular when I want a close look at something. But, if I had gone on this trip without bi-noculars, I would have looked like a complete moron. So, I took them. I have powerful, but heavy binoculars which are made to sit on a table top, not hang around the neck. Real birders have shoulder harnesses for their 'binocs' which keeps them from swinging wildly, but I don't. They also have lightweight and expensive Swiss and German binoculars. When birders are together, in the down time between birds they compare equipment, "Bet you're glad you're dragging around those lead fifty-forties today, John!" Stuff like that. They also talk about rare birds they've seen and the money spent and hardships endured to see them. I have little to contribute to this, since I'm a birding hacker by comparison. I am completely out classed and out 'glassed' by them, and I know it. Additionally, between my enormous camera and lens and my clunky binoculars around my neck, I looked like a psychotic yoked oxen, so I kept out of the discussion. 
   The bird we were all hot to see, or more accurately, freezing our keesters to see, was a Yellow-billed Loon. It's also called the "White-billed Diver." It looks just like a Common loon, but with a pale, yellow bill; appearing comparativley white.  The largest of the loons or diver birds, it's a bit bigger than the Common loon by about two inches and has a slightly longer bill. They are birds of the Arctic circle only rarely descending to the lower forty-eight. In all of bird record keeping in the State Of Maine, there has only been one ever seen here before. To see the bird this time was a really big deal bringing out all of the birding top guns in northern New England that could afford it or were just plain crazy enough (that's my category) to make the trip. Ultimately, we would ride seven miles out to sea to see what we could see in the hopes of twitching the big bird.
     We left out of Portland Harbor aboard the Odyssey which is actually a whale watching tour service. The boat captain droned away on a scratchy P.A. system about various landmarks as we left the harbor. We did see a porpoise or two and tuna, but no whales. None of us cared about that, either as the "tuna" we were after, our "catch of the day," would be the bird. We did pass enormous flotillas of Common loons, more than I had ever heard of at one time, never mind to have seen. I counted well over two hundred, numerous of them in rafts of 30-40 birds at a time. A group of loons is called an "asylum." I don't think there is a term for a group of birders, but there should be.
     As we rolled further and further out to sea across lead colored water, even the birds got fewer and fewer. Thin jokes were handed around the group about all of us getting dipped. That's what birders say when you set out to twitch but turn up a loser. A few times, someone would yell, "Look! Look! Over there! Two o'clock off the bow!" and a wave of arms with binoculars would swing up like the legs of synchronized swimmers. But, nothing. I added up the costs of this birdless, cold, dismal trip: Ticket - $40, gas - $10, parking - $10, lunch - $5. Total: $65. I was beginning to mull over my sandwich. I was thinking how happy I was to have brought one because soon, I could boredom eat.
     Then, suddenly the captain backed off the boat throttle idling down the engine. "There! There it is, ladies and gentlemen, what you've all come to see! We're coming up on the Yellow-billed off the bow!" His excitement radiated through the lousy sound system. The mob of birders scrambled en masse to one side of the boat like roaches when the light goes on. Abundant oohing, ahhhing and pointing created a haze of happiness above the crowd; everybody was delighted. Even the other passengers - the non-birders were caught up in the glee fest. I forgot about my sandwich and started taking pictures, what I had come for even more than the bird.
     In the end, sharing a rare bird or any other once-in-a-lifetime experience is the greatest equalizer. If the bird had not been twitched, but missed, we would all have spent the same long, gray and expensive day, a day lost from work, a day not taking care of business at home. To have the supreme pleasure of something so rare, regardless of experience, wealth or even interest, is a glory shared with another nonetheless. There is nothing finer. After the fact, it was a million dollar bird.

To see additional photographs of the Yellow-billed loon and other birds and Maine scenic landscapes from the same trip, click HERE. Thanks for looking.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"A Spicing Of Birds" - Book Release

     Mark you calendars, ladies and gentlemen! Be at The Gulf Of Maine bookstore on Maine Street in Brunswick on Saturday, October 30, 2010 at 4PM. Phippsburg artist, Jo Miles Schuman will speak about her new book, "A Spicing Of Birds." Co-edited by Jo with Joanna Bailey Hodgman, the lovely book is a collection of poems by Emily Dickinson, illustrated with classical works of avian art. The carefully selected watercolors, engravings, lithographs and early bird photographs correspond pleasingly with thirty-seven of Dickinson's works. Published by Wesleyan University Press, A Spicing Of Birds is a sensuous tribute to Dickinson's love of birds. Though birds were referenced hundreds of times in her works, Dickinson's deep love of birds has barely been mentioned in previous anthologies. The editors have here explored  the deep relationship of the poet to birds within the pages of this divine, little book. It's a book which feels good in the hand and in the heart. It will appeal to the birding soul in everyone.

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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Hang Over Cure- The Power Of The Pileated Woodpecker

Female Pileated Woodpecker

Recently, I spent three consecutive days on Hermit Island from six forty-five to ten AM. Hermit Island is on the end of the Phippsburg peninsula. Because it juts far out into the Atlantic ocean, it is a haven for migrating birds. They don't like crossing expanses of water any more than I like getting up early. So, they congregate building their numbers for the inevitable crossing. To catch the birds as they began to move with the rising sun's heat, I had to rise at 6, which makes me absolutely nauseous. I'm not crabby when I get up, but I am logy and have to fight back the spins. This is just how it is for me; I'm accustomed to plowing my way toward wakefulness. As soon as I start moving, I'm okay and I really do love the light in the morning and the soft silence.
     Hermit Island is privately owned. It's an undeveloped campground with 275 sites. Columbus Day weekend was the last hurrah. There were many die hard campers, none of whom were awake when I arrived. As I walked the two miles of dirt road to the end of the island, I could hear breathing and snoring from the tents. Picnic tables were littered with beer bottles and cans, debris from partying. A Red squirrel toppled a few to the ground, scaring itself, then scampering away. The only other sounds were rustling leaves, and the birds, thousands of them. Chirring, chipping and whirring mingled with the scratching sounds of tiny claws on bark. As I walked, no matter how carefully I placed each step, rocks skidded and gravel crunched. By comparison, my own foot steps were clunky, until I heard the Pileated woodpeckers.
     Pileateds are noisy. They bash, hammer and tear at trees and their call rips the air. I saw five in one day, four of them near one another. I'm sure they were the Pileated family group I had written about this past spring. It was a thrill to see them all grown up and out tearing up the forest. Their raucous screeching and drumming must have been a delight for hung-over campers' headaches. When I was a child, my father was often hung over. To roust him out and torment him, my mother would bang together pots and pans and tell him she was serving him a glass full of cold pork gravey. This formula usually worked, too. He would probably have preferred a Pileated cure.

Wordless Wednesday


Cross spider on web - not a cross spider, just a Cross spider.

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Friday, October 8, 2010

"Leapin' Lawnowers!" Pickerel Frogs

"Do I look like I could hurt somebody?"
Pickerel Frog
I found this frog in my yard hopping in the grass. It's a Pickerel frog, sometimes called a Grass frog. They live in ponds and lakes, but spend a lot of time out of the water foraging for food. They are only about 2 1/2 inches long and reportedly difficult to catch. When approached, they hop quickly away in a zig-zag pattern. These are the frogs that often are hopping wildly away in front of your lawn mower. I had no trouble catching this one, though. I have a ninety-nine cent secret weapon - a kid's butterfly net from Reny's. Maine residents will know of Reny's as the odd lots store of all time. I have kept the price tag on the net, so I look like the Minnie Pearl of whatever-catchers. Remember her? "How-w-w-DEE-E-E-E! I'm jes' so proud to be here!" was her signature line.

     She was the comedienne and American country singer who wore hats with the price tag hanging on the front in her field of view. As a regular on the variety show "Hee-Haw!", she was always flirting and catchin' fellers. When I was younger, Minnie was my role model for catching men.
     I can be quite a flirt myself. But, these days, I'm more interested in catching insects and frogs than men. I bought the net a couple of years ago and keep it in my car, at the ready for things like this darting frog. Admittedly, on more than one occasion, I've thought about netting my crazy brothers-in-law. When I met my husband, he was easy to catch and required no special equipment. Of course, one must have some understanding of the behaviors of critters in order to catch them, not just the net. I'm sure Minnie Pearl knew this. I knew that the frog would zip away on a zig zag, so I held the net in front of it. Had the frog outwitted me and not hopped into the net as predicted, I would not tell you that I had seen it at all! Well, that's probably not true. To have only seen the frog, but not to have caught it, would be like telling my girlfriends that a man had proposed without having the ring to show for it. Minnie would never have made that mistake.
     The skin secretions of a stressed pickerel frog are known to be toxic to other frogs. They can't be in terrariums or other containers with other frogs because they'll all......CROAK! The secretions can also be moderately irritating if they come in contact with the eyes, mucous membranes, or broken skin of humans. It is advisable to wash up after handling pickerel frogs. After I handled this little feller, I had a swollen lip, but that could have been from when he punched me back after the netting.
     Pickerel frogs hibernate from October through April, but are common here during the spring and summer. Their populations are declining due to deforestation and pollution. One of the biggest sources of the pollution that's killing them is lawn mowers. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a traditional gas powered lawn mower produces as much air pollution as 43 new cars each being driven 12,000 miles. Each weekend, roughly 54 million Americans mow their lawns. They use 800 million gallons of gas per year and produce tons of air pollutants. Garden equipment engines, which have had unregulated emissions until very recently, emit high levels of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, producing up to 5% of the nation's air pollution and a much more in metropolitan areas. The little frogs that aren't chopped up by your lawn mower are left gasping for breath either way. They are very sensitive to their environment and are regarded by biologists as an indicator species. Think of this little feller as a Canary in the coal mine - when you stop seeing or hearing them, stop breathing the air.

Note: Many of you know that my dearly beloved husband makes a living mowing lawns. Sadly, I'm sure he's put more than his share of frogs through the meat grinder. As his wife, I can assure you that he keeps his equipment in great condition. All of it.
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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Wordless Wednesday

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